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Oct 09 2012

Grief Diary, 10/8/12

10/8/12

A hard afternoon today. The fog is settling in over my brain a bit. I knew it probably would be. Today is, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. Today is the first day that’s not being set aside to deal with death and grief, or the recovery from it. Today is the first day that I have to just live my life, and start moving forward through the coming days and weeks and months while managing my grief. That’s hard.

I’m realizing that there are some important differences between managing grief if you have a tendency towards depression, and if you don’t. If I didn’t have a tendency towards depression, if I hadn’t already been having a depressive episode when Dad died, I might be more likely to let myself spend a day or two in bed or on the sofa, just resting and recovering. But since I’m dealing with depression as well as grief, I know this is a bad, bad idea. I know that I need to get up, get dressed, leave the house, get things done. I don’t need to get as much done as I usually do; I don’t need to be as driven and workaholic as I usually am. Hell, if all I do is get up and get dressed and leave the house and then sit in a cafe all day reading Carl Sagan, that’s okay. But at moments when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and like all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and flip on the TV or sleep, I absolutely cannot do that. That will not make me feel better. That will make me feel worse.

This is pissing me off. I really, really, really want to just lie down and sleep. I really want to be a person who, when they’re grieving, can just lie down and sleep for a couple of days, and come out of it feeling rested and refreshed.

However. That being said.

I am, once again, feeling immense gratitude for my years of experience in skeptical thinking and living; my years of understanding about cognitive biases and the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the fact that my brain isn’t always right about everything. At this point, after all those years, knowing that my brain isn’t always right has become natural, almost a reflex. The humility of skepticism is helping me manage this, is helping me do the things I need to do to take care of myself, even when I don’t feel like it and can’t see the point.

You know, I’m struggling to say what I mean here, and I already said it once in my piece Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective, so I’m just going to quote myself:

Because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, I am steeped in the habits of rational thinking. I’m not a perfect rational thinker, of course — nobody is — but I know about cognitive biases. I know how emotions color perception. I know that the perspective I’m seeing the world through at any given moment is not necessarily the most accurate one. I know that I’m not always rational… and I can take steps to counteract this. And because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, these habits of thinking — and of acting — are becoming second nature.

Which makes it much easier to act in a rational manner to take care of my mental health… even when I can’t immediately see any reason to.

When I’m feeling depressed, and am feeling entirely unable to see the possibility that anything could ever make me feel different… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I find it much easier to take action to make myself feel better. I can make myself get up off the sofa and go outside: not because I can feel any point to it, but because I know, intellectually, that there is a point. I can drink a big glass of water every couple/ few hours: not because I have any appetite or desire for it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will help wake me up. I can take a long walk before I go to work: not because I take any pleasure in it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will alleviate the depression. Etc. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when I don’t have any immediate ability to see the point.

Which is why, after a hard afternoon, I had a pretty good evening. Made it to the gym — not wanting to go, not feeling like going, not having it in me to do anything but stay at home and sit on the sofa and eat and watch TV and play with kitties — and was so, so, so, so glad I did. I fucking love lifting weights. Lifting weights is one of the great sensual pleasures of my life. And vigorous exercise is one of the best natural anti-depressants I have. Vigorous exercise wakes me up, breaks through the fog. Vigorous exercise makes me feel like I’m actually present in my life. When we went home afterward and made a healthy dinner and sat on the sofa and petted kitties and watched Fashion Police, it didn’t feel like I was hiding from the world, or sinking into torpor — the way it would have if I’d just stayed home. It felt like… well, it felt like our life. It felt like a regular Monday evening with Ingrid, where we go to the gym and then come back and enjoy our home and each other.

And I was able to go to the gym, in large part, because I was able to trust my rational brain. I was able to trust the part of my brain that said, “I know you don’t feel like you want to do this… but trust me, you do. This will make you feel better. Remember that you don’t always feel this shitty, and that going to the gym is a pretty reliable way of breaking through the shit. Remember that in the years you’ve been going to the gym, there have been maybe half a dozen times when you’ve regretted going, and every single one has been when you’ve been profoundly sleep-deprived… which you aren’t now. So just put one foot in front of the other, and go.”

Thank you, rational brain!

6 comments

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  1. 1
    mikmik

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Greta. I just went through the loss of my brother. I get depression, and I remember even a year ago wondering if I would be able to handle it if it happened. By six months ago, I knew I could.
    I understand your grief, if not the depth of it, so just know that you are not alone(I’m sure you do) and others understand.
    I was allowed 4 days off work, but I knew, as you do, that that would be the wrong thing to do, and it was critical to get up and keep going. In fact, I was scared of being alone.

    Funny that, but I have also learned that my rational and critical thinking skills are a huge buffer towards depression, and just like you, I know that it will not last forever. That’s way easier said than done, and that drive to give up and sleep, and wake up feeling better, is over powering when you are already feeling depressed.

    So I want to commend you on your courage and fortitude that rationality gives you. Remind yourself that you are capable of amazing thinking and expression of your thoughts, and I am sure you are passionate and intensely driven when you are ‘om a mission.’

    Funny, through my addictions and alcoholism, the one thing I learned was the importance of never giving in to my need to just escape, for I know that when you wake up, your problems are still there, along with an overwhelming sense of guilt and powerlessness, not refreshment.

    Your quote from your book expresses exactly, exactly, my thinking! I can’t tell anyone what they should do, but I know your words are right for me as well.

    But. like I always say if I do feel obliged to comment, “Take my advice, I’m not using it!” LOL (It’s a reminder to myself, that’s all)

    Critical thinking has been my rock, and it gives us the ability to keep one foot in reality even when we feel like we are losing our minds.

    All I know is that we can still think very realistically, even when our emotions scream otherwise.

  2. 2
    emmaedwards

    Hi Greta,

    I also lost my Dad a few weeks ago. It’s been a comfort to read your diary, I wrote a poem for my Dad’s funeral, which I read out (boy, that was tough). I was a bit worried that as the funeral was conducted by a vicar (Church of England) my more secular views on death wouldn’t be well received, but I was surprised to find how well it went down and how many people asked me for a copy. Here is a link to it on my blog. I would love you to read it.

    http://hopelesspip.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/its-been-while.html

    Thoughts to you in your time of grief and healing.

  3. 3
    geocatherder

    I’m inspired by the trust you have in your rational mind. I need to learn to trust mine more. I’ve been giving into depression the last couple of days, due to an occasion that brings up difficult memories and emotions. But if you can trust your rational mind, I can make a whole lot more effort to trust mine!

  4. 4
    keelychaisson

    Hell, if all I do is get up and get dressed and leave the house and then sit in a cafe all day reading Carl Sagan, that’s okay. But at moments when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and like all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and flip on the TV or sleep, I absolutely cannot do that. That will not make me feel better. That will make me feel worse.

    This is pissing me off. I really, really, really want to just lie down and sleep. I really want to be a person who, when they’re grieving, can just lie down and sleep for a couple of days, and come out of it feeling rested and refreshed.

    This is the biggest thing that makes me fucking hate depression. I hate that I can’t trust the signals my body gives me to lay down, to rest, to recover. On the one hand, extreme stress does a number on my body–I have muscle spasms from excess tension in my neck, panic attacks, and digestive issues at times–and I legitimately need downtime to recover. And when I’m just plain old sick, with a cold or whatever, I really need to remember that I need downtime to recover because I am very prone to ending up very sick from what started out as a mild illness. But if I am too inactive, it makes me miserable, and that can make me depressed.

    I just want to be a normal person who can have a few days of sobbing and/or wallowing after big tragic/awful/sad events, and then get up and start moving on. Instead, I have to regulate myself very carefully even in the worst of times, such that grief doesn’t spiral into me wanting to kill myself. I hate that. Sometimes, I just want a break from being such a fierce guardian of my mental health. Is that really so much to ask?

  5. 5
    huntstoddard

    Thanks Greta, this is a great post.

    I’m wondering if anyone else sees as much of an effect by the type of entertainment they indulge in as I do. I happen to be addicted to a nightly DVD watching that I get from Blockbuster. I’ve gone many weeks watching pretty overwrought drama and/or semi-violent action-adventure and then notice that during the days I’m sluggish/depressed and anxious. Then I’ll switch to something lighter or upbeat and the next day there’s a total shift in my attitude toward life. I particularly think this happens due to the fact that our entertainment is often the last thing we indulge before sleep. (A great post would be one where people could suggest mood-positive entertainment.)

    We may not have direct control over our mood or the neuro-chemistry of our brains, but as you mention here, using reason and prediction, we do have control over how to attain brighter mood and better state of mind.

  6. 6
    LykeX

    Man, I haven’t checked your blog for a while and I come back to this.

    I’m sorry to hear about your father. It sucks. Virtual hugs. Don’t know what else to say, so that’ll have to do.

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